Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Top 13: Best of Machines Gone Bad

--compiled by Nickolas Cook and The Black Glove staff

Our fear of the very technology which we create, and subsequently rely upon to do the tasks which we are unwilling or unable to perform has been around since there was such a thing as a modern technology to fear.

Even in the days of the cotton gin and the steamhammer (remember the story of John Henry?), we humans felt that disquieting little niggling in the back of our collective mind that machines might one day come to rule we flesh and blood entities.  They are simply soulless and heartless mechanisms that in most cases are only as good as the people who have created, built and then use them.  Which is to say, sometimes not at all worth the effort that goes into making them and then maintaining them.  And in some cases, by using them, we are simply trading one or more tasks because of them.

As our technology has become more and more complex, and in some ways more and more human, it seems our fears scream all the louder from the back of that collective mind.

Two fairly recent cases in point:

The Y2K scare was something which terrified most of us; especially the implication that those magical mechanisms would no longer be usuable.  The end of 1999 saw people hiding in homemade shelters, running to stores to buy out their supplies of water and canned goods.  It was a fullblown panic, folks.

The second example might not have gotten quite the press the Y2K scare recieved, but when the CERN Large Hedron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland was first re-started back several years ago, and the first of many exeperiments with the so-called "negative mass", and the possible accidental unleashing of unwanted and uncontrollable"antimatter", many professional 'chicken-littles' and religious groups claimed that we would unwittingly destroy, if not the entire universe in seconds, then at least our planet.  All life would go out like a dead candle flame.

Of course, we all know none of those things happened (or did they in some "parallel/alternate universe/dimension" that we aren't aware of yet?), but it was our ever-increasing distrust of the ever-more intricate and complex (read: not understood and comprehended by the general public) technologies over which we to not enjoy individual control that made us scurry like frightened rats in a cage.  And, now, with every passing day, we see more and more technology, machines and mechanisms which we do not understand or control butting their way into our daily lives.  Of course we tend to let our laziness get the best of us and can usually justify the use of those scary old machines anyway, right?

In picking the titles which we felt deseved to be on this top 13 lost we had to go all the way back to the beginning of film, because even then we were filled with doom in regards to the way the modern Industrial Revolution had already ravaged what we thought of us an idyllic life--which, of course, it wasn't.  There were plenty of people who were killing themselves trying to keep up with the hundreds of menial duties that most people had to attend just to simply have light and food and shelter.  So we traded that idyllic (fairytale) existence to live longer and healthier.  But we definitely sold part of our souls in doing so.  And it was that realization which began to show up in our first films.

As we moved through the 1920s up to modern day cinema, we also tried to pick titles which were representative of the different decades.  Unfortunately, when you're dealing with a list of only 13 titles, it's inevitable that too many films aren't going to make list.  There were several titles that were just as good as the films which made the list, but in the interest of trying to give the list a little range over the decades, we had to drop them off the shortlist as we made our decisions.

Of course some of the films didn't make the list purely because the fact that machines going bad weren't the main focus of the film. Movies such as "The Andromeda Strain" (1971) and "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) are both excellent films that entertained and made us think.  But also their wayward machines were only one facet of the whole narrative.  And there were others, which may have been decent films, such as "TRON" (1982), "Maximum Overdrive" (1986), "The Matrix Trilogy" (1999-2003), and even the new sequel to Disney's original TRON, "TRON: Legacy" (2011), but they weren't as representative of the best offerings in the sub-genre.

We also had to consider which films were more hard science fiction than the unsettling, darker side of that genre; obviously, when dealing with technology in any fictional sense, you're going to be dealing with science fiction in regards to what futuristic vision the particular narrative is laying out for mankind.  Most of them tend to be pretty dystophic in nature, or else they wouldn't have even been considered for this list. 

But enough with the explainations.  With those details in mind, we offer our Top 13 list of the Best of Machines Gone Band.
(NOTE: The titles are in year of release sequence only--not in order of best.)

13. Metropolis (1927) This is the orginal 'machines gone bad' film by iconic German Expressionist director Fritz Lang. A machine created woman keeps the masses under control, enslaved to keeping the machines oiled and in working order. There are some great moments in the film that have been copied by many filmmakers, including modern directors such as Steven Spielberg, and the final rebellion is symbolic of the times in which Lang lived.


12. Gog (1954) Reknowned because the film was shot in widescreen, color and 3D in a time when no films got all three treatments at once. In this one, a vast supercomputer controls two robotic killers and when it goes mad because of foreign spies having infiltrated its programming.

11. Forbidden Planet (1956) This is a classic sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare's "The Tempest", only this time a mad scientist has become the unwitting pawn to a vast planet-sized super computer that in turns gives his unconscious ego the power to kill with invisible (Disney animated) monsters.

10. The Colossus of New York (1958) The Colossus in question is a giant manmade monster robot that straddles the line between the ancient legend of the Golem and modern robots, which play in this as a metallic version of the Golem. When its creator loses his mind the giant robot goes out of control and begins destroying everything in sight. It is only the scientist's humanity that allows them to finally destroy the destroyer.


9. Fail Safe (1964) Sidney Lumet is one of Hollywood's most respected and talented directors who was able to continue making great films all the way to his death in 2011. This is maybe the very first film to depict what happens when our then modern computer controlled system of auto-launched bombers carrying devastating nuclear weapons. Henry Fonda plays the President of the United States of America who must try to make compromise with the Russians,who also have equally auto-launched bombers that take off as soon as ours do. Can the end of the world be stopped?

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) This the Stanley Kubrick film most people can name because of its iconic status among great filmmaking. Kubrick uses several at the time avant garde cinematic speciall effects and techniques to tell the story (with the help of co-writer Arthur C. Clarke, grandmaster science fiction author and technology philosopher) of how mankind was first given his will and ability to evolve by a helpful alien race that watches us for during the hundreds of thousands of years of our eventual evolution into a spacefaring species, at which point they come back to wlecome us to a new beginning among a larger universe of intelligent life. Most people know the LSD inspired space travel sequence, but not many understand what it really means. Most people probably don't care because the movie is well made.

7. Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) Colossus, in this case, is the name of our supercomputer that controls all our defensive weapons. When it and the Russian counterpart, Guardian, are both disconnected from one another and their respective systems, the two computers decide it must be an error and take over both systems, thereby in essence trading all secrets between each other, making the two become one vast system. When the computers figure out who has tried to take them offline, they also decide to control the people who attempted to do so. Forbin is played Eric Braedon, the scientist whose every moment of life is directed and controlled by a pissed off super computer.


6. Westworld (1973) Written and directed by the late, great science fiction writer/technology philosopher Michael Crichton ponders what would happen if we used our future tech to create the world's greatest vacation playground, where the super rich can play out their fantasies of being a knight or a cowboy or even more hedonistic pursuits in the name of R and R, and those complex robotic playthings went haywire and started killing all the island's vacationers. It explored several aspects of technology as plaything and starred the great Yul Brynner, who plays his "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) as a gunslinging killer in black.


5. Dark Star (1974) This is John Carpenter's debut film which started as a student film and was later expanded into a feature film along with co-writer and co-producer Dan O'Bannon. It's part dark comedy and part science fiction futuristic thriller and tells the story of a trio of half insane astronauts on a spaceship called the "Dark Star". They co-habitat with an intelligent bomb, which becomes too smart for its own good and determines that it's God and decides that it was time to "let there be light". Carpenter's existential statement is loud and clear.

4. Demon Seed (1977) Starring Julie Christie as the unfortunate sex slave prisoner to a super intelligent computer Protheus IV (voiced chillingly by Robert Vaughn) that has decided to procreate, using a real woman to do so. This is a very graphic warning against allowing our technology too much control over every aspect of our daily lives.

3. Bladerunner (1982) This is a classic science fiction/future noir film by the hugely talented director Ridley Scott about a small band of humanoid robots so complex that decide that they are "more human than human" and track down their creators to demand more life, since they've been constructed with a failsafe kill date of four years. When one of these "replicants" goes crazy, the police bring in Harrison Ford's 'bladerunner', who is part cop/part hired replicant assassin. Scott's vision of the sodden, dystophian future L.A. is classic filmmaking and has been the blueprint for countless ripoff sci-fi films since its original run. Dark and grim, the film is filled with important questions about how we create and abuse technology. The fact that he found a way to end it on a hopeful note is a testament to his storytelling talents.


2. War Games (1983) Think of this as the John Hughes of sci-fi movies. Director John Badham cranks up the thrills when he sets the clock for worldwide destruction via a childlike super computer that doesn't understand the difference between the innocuous 'wargames' it plays with teenager Matthew Broderick and the real thing when it decides the only way to win is to destroy all life on earth by launching hundreds of nuclear missiles. This has managed to become a classic, despite its dated use of images and technological references. Check out the monitor on that badass Commodore home computer.


1. The Terminator (1984) Another classic science fiction warning from the super talented director, James Cameron. In the future, mankind has lost the war between himself and the super computers who have taken over the world and have started to create their own progeny, robotic assassins called "Terminators". The killer future robot played by the then mostly unknown muscleman actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has followed Michael Biehn's future rebel warrior to present day L.A., 1984, to stop him from saving the woman who will give birth to the future savior of mankind who will lead them to victory over the machines. This was supposedly taken from a short by legendary author Harlan Ellison, but if so, it's a far cry from his origin material, for sure. Cameron hit the world with this awesome vision of a future machine world and the thrilling rollercoaster ride of an action film as an unstoppable machine vs. man (and woman).

--Nickolas Cook